Poetry Project

Poetry by numbers

Not surprisingly, given its connection to music, poetry is obsessed with numbers. Poetic form counts syllables, stresses, beats, lines, stanzas and repetitions. Poets are drawn to the symbolic power of certain numbers.  Numbers crop up frequently in poem titles, and play an important role in the content of many poems.

This month’s workshop invites you to respond to this numerical preoccupation by following any of the prompts below, or in any other way that inspires you.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP November poetry workshop to the SLiP editor pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Sunday 6 November 2011.  Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.

1.         ‘No branch of number theory is more saturated with mystery and elegance than the study of prime numbers, “those exasperating, unruly integers that refuse to be divided evenly by any integers except themselves and 1,”’ says mathematician Sarah Glaz, quoting Martin Gardner (‘Patterns and Prime’)

Write a poem about or using prime numbers, for example:

Prime Numbers
by Jim Mele

Prime numbers,
I remember them
like drinks
following complicated folk laws.
Out in California
a friend visits a pebble
beach, indivisible
in this uncertain life.

Addition [1]
by Langston Hughes

7 x 7 + love =
An amount
Infinitely above:
7 x 7 – love.

2.         Write a two-line poem, for example:

By Gus Ferguson

How vulnerable this fellow feels
With ninety-nine Achilles’ heels.

(From Dubious delights of ageing and other follies)

3         Write a haiku, for example

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

(Haiku by Issa, translated by Robert Hass)

4.         Write a rhyming quatrain, for example:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Dirge Without Music")

5.          Write a tanka, for example:

oh pain-killer,
along with my ache
please remove
the sensitivity
of my emotions

(by Kitakubo Mariko)

 … or write a cinqain, for example

Niagara (Seen on a Night in November)
By Adelaide Crapsey

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.

6        Write a sonnet with an octave and a sestet.

7.          Write a 7-line poem, for example:

Child on Top of a Greenhouse
By Theodore Roethke

 The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

8.         Write an 8-line poem that consists of 8 warnings, for example:

by Meng Chiao

Keep away from sharp swords,
Don't go near a lovely woman.
A sharp sword too close will wound your hand,
Woman's beauty too close will wound your life.
The danger of the road is not in the distance,
Ten yards is far enough to break a wheel.
The peril of love is not in loving too often,
A single evening can leave its wound in the soul.

9.         Write a 10-line poem, one line dedicated to each of the years in the past decade of your life.  The reference to the year should not be CV-like.  Instead, the mood, feeling, achievements or losses of that particular year should all be conveyed in a single concrete image.  For example:

2010:    A cormorant dried turned its face from me as it dried its wings.
2009:    The two who used to walk beside me gave one another a secret nod and left together.

10.        Any poem on any subject.  Spare a thought for the number 9, which I seem to have omitted.

Submitted Poems

(after Botticelli)
John Eppel

I use the same knife to amputate my
little toe, and to cut the olive twig
poised like a paint brush; then turn to the sigh
reeking of locust, wild honey, dried fig,
which escapes from your slackening mouth, dear
John.  Notice how like a pencil I hold
the dudgeon.  Look carefully at the smear
of our blood mingled with slime in a fold
of my lace-edged smock.

There’s a wind blowing
against us; our water bottles are dry,
and there’s some kind of conflict going
on in the background.  Many souls will fly.
My slave, bearing your head on hers, looks vexed,
but I’m resigned: your cousin will be next.

Prime pleasures
Danielle Crouse

each pure prime
unity wholly contained
to infinite individuality
extending unending and indescribably clean

One’s a crowd
Danielle Crouse

Always I am one
Though not with the universe
Not prime, odd(,) even.

Danielle Crouse

I choose to walk my days alone,
with head of steel and heart made stone,
but when I see a two or three
Something small expires in me.

Erikson's eight
Danielle Crouse

Our newborn trust-bound hope binds motherfather near
Then loosens, distances, sensing free will and shame
And soon a sense of purpose, and a sense of blame,
Our competence we learn to judge, and to compare.
Through teenaged years of tears we feel the I unfold
Then into we’s we plunge, form bonds, support, and break
Partnering then done with, we seek our claim to stake
And – this all done - we then reflect, regret, grow old.
How can one dream and strive and hope to see new things
If every season’s coming’s known, and no surprise it brings,
If every year’s as planned, the future is certain,
From our first gasped breath, up to the final curtain?
Yet every feeling’s all my own, and each day new
When dawn’s first song opens my eyes, and I see you.

Danielle Crouse

Drink your cream (plumping, line-softening) and you’ll feel it on your thighs,
Forget your cream (plumping, line-softening) and they’ll see it in your eyes.
Cross a woman, and you’ll wish for suicide,
Be a cross woman, and you’ll be crucified.
Sleep one hour more, dance and love one less
Avoid good rest, and live in dream-free emptiness.
Sing in your chains, you’ll ne’er cast them aside,
Unchain your heart, and you’ll put at risk your pride.

Sarah Frost

Push into her, feel her unlock
you the key, and her body a door, opening.

Sunday evening
Sarah Frost

Tonight you read bedtime stories to your son
and tuck him in under his bold bright quilt;
breathe in his sweet forever breath.
But, across the country, the woman with cancer lies palled in pain
waiting for an end she does not yet know
until sleep loosens her hand from her husband’s grasp,
bringing morning, a little more time.

Sarah Frost

Beware the fickle ring she wears, filigreed with your name.
Her glance at him across an empty beach is not insignificant.
Forced love is a kayak with a snapped paddle.
Love and duty are a mismatched couple.
Loyalties shift more subtly than the tide.
The sea anemone’s folds are treacherous to some.
You cannot snare the keen light of a rising moon.
A tumult of flotsam will follow the wave of desire.

From 0-140kph and back again
J.D. Warner

“Turn it up,” says the foxy forty at the end of the bar,
winking, stinking of gin, “it’s such a groovy little number”.
“Yes, ‘bout as groovy as that little one you’re wearing.”
Twenty-something-twinkle in eye; I can’t stop staring.

“Can I get your number, darling, you’re awful cute?”
Bourbon slurring, blurred bartender vision arisen.
“It’s 0800-let’s-get-outta-here my dear baby blue,”
“Can you wait? We only shut up shop around two.”

“Buy me another, I’ll get bored just waiting,” so
I slides a gin and tonic down the countertop fast,
can’t remember when last such childish excitement,
occurred at the purr of impassioned enticement.

In storms a man, 6 foot 3, in conquering prime,
“Mother, you’re drunk!” To me, “what did you do?”
“I…” Excitement recedes, as the blood from my nether,
My number’s up, and all hopes have been tethered.

The mirror is shallow
J.D. Warner

The boys in the gym
Want to be muscled and strong,
Attract sex on tap.
But like Narcissus before,
Can’t see past their reflections.

The Silver One
Sara P. Dias

Roots netted by the coral
and the bristling acacia,
the leaves of the birch tree,
serrated in the image of her seed,
stand out among the scalloped and feathery:
foredoomed to project a picturesque
Northern clime, rust and red
set in at the advent of a
Southern pubescent spring.

She is denied the
the rapture of young leaves

in their rub and slip
against one another,
frisked about in the spring breeze:
sap presses through her skin
as if after a winter thaw, dries,
tightening it, making it inflexible,
so that when her buds erupt bright

over a frosty winter, she feels that
she must be more,
like the naked coral tree with its
flamboyant red tips in spring.
She flares into foliage amid the rimed
trees of a southern hemisphere, a crown
of arched branches, dripping leaves,
resembling that summer’s weeping
willow and drooping karee.

The Trio
Sara P. Dias

You speak of converting digital to analogue
and bi-wiring the speakers for
more enveloping frequencies.

Draped warm by a cat and surround sound
my voice strains the lines of a poem
above Keith Jarrett’s crows and swoons,

and is further sifted through your
praise of high fidelity,
until it drifts low and heavy into a sigh.

CV for a decade
Yvette Morey

2001       Leave everything; a new country smells like snow and fabric conditioner.

2002       On buses to-and-from the city gathering happiness overwhelms me.

2003       A candy love-heart makes me old.

2004       All the while longing.

2005       Nick Cave soothsays the end of a relationship, and a picnic.

2006       A new room in an ancient city hears a confession, yet reverberating.

2007       Returning, I recognise my own smell but not my mother.

2008       A stranger arrives with gifts, imparts my country and poetry.

2009       Black hole of a Yorkshire night, the gravitational pull of a dying mother.

2010       Framework, narrative, plot, obliterated. Re-cast: birth-wife.


I have spent the last fifteen minutes staring at Salomé’s toes, all because of John Eppel’s marvellous poem written in the voice of Herod’s wicked stepdaughter.  Vivid, sensual, macabrely chatty, subtly rhymed (until the last devastating vexed/next) couplet, understated in its threat, and threaded through with an extended painting metaphor, this is a remarkably clever and accomplished poem.

But the amputated toe?  Does Salomé really cut off her own toe (like modern-day wearers of Jimmy Choo shoes), or does she cut it off as an artist with poor foot painting skills might do?  Whatever the answer is, I enjoyed researching Salomé’s toes in paintings of her by Moreau, Henri, Bussière and Da Sesto.

My daughter is writing her final English paper this week, and out of curiosity I consulted the marker’s memoranda for creative writing. I wondered what criterion the great educational machine would use to measure excellence.  ‘Critical awareness of impact of language,’ says the document. Danielle Crouse’s ‘One’s a crowd’ managed to create an impact with thirteen words and a couple of punctuation marks.  My daughter tells me that the latest phrase to express the idea of doing something very well is ‘like a boss’. Well, ‘like a boss,’ Danielle!  I also really liked the wistfulness of your ‘Onetwo(be)three’ and your clever play on ‘Erikson’s eight’ psychosocial phases of human development.

Sarah Frost is subtly ominous in her poems that track human relationships: I’ve chosen the brief but lingering ‘Entering’ (I love the way the commas slow that last line down) and ‘Endgame’ with its beautifully axiomatic ‘Forced love is a kayak with a snapped paddle’.

I laughed at J.D. Warner’s rollicking barroom rhyme, ‘From 0-140kph and back again’, especially the line,: ‘Excitement recedes, as blood from my nether’.  J.D.’s ‘The mirror is shallow’ is another example of crackling wit.

Sara P.Dias managed to make me care about an out-of-synch silver birch tree in her ‘The Silver One’ – quite an achievement since I am usually wary of nature poetry.  Sara’s ‘The Trio’ plays delightfully with the idea of three-ness and cross-purposes.

Finally, Yvette Morey’s ‘CV for a Decade’ hints at an intriguing story and draws us in with its deft and suggestive images.

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